Great Chair (1993.1)

Essay by Eliza West, WPMAC '19

Fiddle-Back Chair

Nathaniel Dominy traced this pattern onto a board before flipping it over to trace a mirror image. This style of crest rail was one of the creative solutions arrived at by country chair makes who sought to imitate the elaborate designs of Thomas Chippendale using the techniques in which they were already proficient.

Nathaniel Dominy made at least 31 of what he described in his account books as “fiddle back” chairs between 1796 and 1808. Several other chair makers, including John Durand of Milford, CT, also produced fiddle-back chairs around this time. The splat pattern used on this chair is less common than the vase-shaped splat that appears on many other chairs in the period. Despite that, at least seven other chairs with this splat design made by the Dominys survive.

No pattern survives for this chair’s armrests, and no other surviving Dominy chairs use quite the same style. Despite this, it is likely that the arms were sawn out much like the chair’s crest rail and splat. In a particularly clever move, Nathaniel Dominy fitted small wooden buttons to the outside of the scrolls, which help to evoke the intricately carved scrolls found on high-style chairs, using skills which Nathaniel V already possessed.

Close up it is possible to see that the button of wood which has been attached to the outside of the chair arm is incised with decorative rings, further aiding its imitation of a carved scroll. This detail indicates both Nathaniel V’s ingenuity and his attention to style.

The chair’s front legs are another example of how Nathaniel V used turning to create effective imitations of more elaborate styles. To approximate a cabriole leg using a lathe, he turned these legs in two stages. First, he offset his stock on the lathe to turn the chair’s foot. Then he centered his stock and turned the rest of the leg, creating the distinctive cabriole “foot” and “knee.” Though the style of this chair is not unique to the Dominys’ workshop, it’s careful construction and detailing helps to illustrate Nathaniel Dominy V’s proficiency as a turner.

A particularly beautiful example of the Dominys' turned furniture is this fiddle-back armchair, dating from between 1790 and 1815. Also known as “Hudson Valley chairs” or “York chairs,” this style was wide-spread in New York State and Connecticut during the second half of the eighteenth century. Though a rural style, this chair evokes the curvilinear and naturalistic shapes popular throughout much of the eighteenth-century. The Dominys rarely employed carving on their work. Instead, to make this chair, Nathaniel V relied on patterns to cut shapes, and on his skill as a turner. In doing so, he used techniques which could be applied in many different contexts, and which were therefor were particularly useful to a rural craftsman.

When making chair parts, it is very probably that Nathaniel V turned a dozen or more identical parts at once, since chairs were typically bought in sets. More than that, however, turned chairs parts were easier to produce en mass, and once made could easily be stockpiled and used later. Even in a rural community like East Hampton, chairs were constantly in need of replacement. Nathaniel V used turning not only creatively, but also efficiently.